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The tie that binds the Pentateuchal covenants.
From the outset of God’s involvement with his creation, covenants provide the proper articulation of how divinity relates to humanity. The complex chronicle of the Pentateuch, with its weaving of an assortment of narratives, is best understood through the framework of the covenantal relationships which God institutes. Accordingly, with some eighty-two mentions of covenants throughout the Pentateuch,one is given an array of covenantal scenarios from which to glean the meaning and motivation behind God’s insistence on covenants themselves. P. R. Williamson defines a covenant as “a solemn commitment guaranteeing promises or obligations undertaken by one or both covenanting parties.” The solemnity of these commitments cannot be overstated. The parties involved certainly understood that the professed stakes allowed for neither haste or nonchalance. (Ecc 5:4–6) Yet, even still, God exhibits an unyielding desire to fulfill his own purposes throughout the Pentateuch, notwithstanding humanity’s impediments or intrusions.
As God establishes the order of creation and installs Adam as a priest in the Garden, God initiates a covenant with man through the form of specific blessings (Gn 1:28–31) and commands. (Gn 2:15–17) There are implicit guarantees and obligations within the words of the Creator, articulating the corollaries to be upheld and the consequences if not heeded. God sternly relays and enforces these consequences in the wake of man’s rebellion, sustaining the upshots of the established covenant. But even here one is made to see God’s gracious heart which does not allow the repercussions of the Fall to dissuade him from covenanting with man again. (Gn 3:15) Humanity is, then, made to feel the awful reverb of this covenantal breach. Sin is lodged into the spiritual composition of the world, with “every inclination of the human mind” reeking of wickedness and “nothing but evil all the time.” (Gn 6:5) Such is what precipitates the Flood.
When the deluge recedes, God establishes another covenant at a moment in history which is best understood in terms of “re-creation.” Indeed, the parallels between the pre- and post-deluge covenants indicate that God’s involvement with his creation is one of his chiefest glories. (Gn 9:1–16; cf. 1:26–30) The initiation of this pledge is uniquely divine, with God almost covenanting with himself to keep the waters of judgment at bay. “God describes the covenant as ‘my covenant,’” Williamson continues, “because he initiates it and he alone determines its constituent elements.”This promise is further articulated in God’s selection of Abraham as the covenantal promissory through which the blessings of God would be realized in nationhood. (Gn 12:1–3; 15:1–21; 17:1–8) As Abraham’s career unfolds, the fulfillment of God’s covenant grows increasingly more precarious, if not altogether unachievable. This is due in large part because of Abraham’s own tenuous decision-making. (Gn 12:10–20, 17:17; 20:1–18) “By the end of the Abraham story,” L. A. Turner writes, “the promise of nationhood remains viable, but only by the slenderest of threads.” One is inclined to realize that God’s operative framework is best represented in scenarios with seemingly insurmountable hazards. Such is what displays the Creator’s true character.
All of the covenantal language one could survey simultaneously reveals the nature of man and the nature of God, and more so the latter. The Pentateuch exposes man’s hubris by showcasing his unwillingness to surrender to God’s timing in the fulfillment of his covenantal promises. As Turner notes, “Human attempts to enforce the blessings, or to further them through purely human initiatives, tend to frustrate them.”Therefore, as man is seen furthering disorder and disfunction, God exhibits a persistent and patient resolve to bring to bear the reconciliation and restoration of creation to its pre-Fall glory and purpose. As one reads the narratives of creation, the deluge, and God’s specific familial undertaking in the choosing of Abraham, one is humbled by the almost stubborn insistence of God to make right what humanity has broken. The Seed will come and rectify all that has been torn asunder. (Gn 3:15) Such is what undergirds every covenantal relationship throughout the Pentateuchal narrative.
The way in which this is done is seldom uncomplicated, however. “The fact that the reader’s expectations are rarely fulfilled in a straightforward way is not evidence of a lack of literary finesse, but rather the reverse,” Turner asserts.Episode after episode of upended expectations denotes divine involvement in humanity’s self-made mess, attesting to the fact that there is no atrocity or travesty in the created order so corrupt that the Creator himself will not intervene and mediate his desired ends. The cycle of initiation, frustration, and restoration of the covenantal relationships is continually interrupted by God, demonstrating his overriding redemptive and restorative interest in creation itself. Which is to say that the promise in utero in Genesis 3:15 is the embryonic hope which binds together God’s covenantal relations with man.
P. R. Williamson, “Covenant,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, edited by T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 139.
L. A. Turner, “Book of Genesis,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, edited by T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 354.